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What Going to a Local Store Is Like With a Panic Disorder

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There was a time when popping out to the local convenience store was just another daily chore and the only thing I worried about was forgetting what it was I needed in the first place. That time seems so long ago now. Today it has become so different because I am different. As I sit here writing, I reflect on how a “good day” for me now would probably have been the worst day ever before when I felt “normal.” This was my experience yesterday. Today it might be totally different, and I sit here in dread of the moment I know I must pop over the road again.

Each night I plan out the next day with a little list — a habit I find calms my mind before I go to bed each night and also useful, as most days when I wake up I my mind can be a confusing place. Doing this also gives me a sense of accomplishment at a time in my life when I often feel worthless and guilty. On my list there is usually something to remember to get at the local store. It’s always part of my routine on the way home from work to pass by the shop and get whatever I needed. But as the new day dawns and the time approaches to go, that awful feeling of dread starts to grip my stomach. Going shopping has become a nightmare.

I double and triple check I have everything I need, especially my water bottle which so often is a lifeline, and I leave. Around the corner I can see the store on the other side of the street up ahead. And it starts.

Almost always a really scary feeling fills my mind like a sudden storm on a warm day. I become breathless and dizzy. My heart jumps. My mind becomes detached, my thoughts uncontainable. Not mine to control, like running into turbulence high above the ocean. I have an overwhelming feeling of panic.

I remind myself, “Just breathe, this will pass, just breathe.” I manage to get to the place where I cross the busy avenue. So many cars, so much noise, so many people. I feel I am falling. My body freezes, I can’t feel my feet, I can’t move. I find a gap in the traffic and push myself to cross to the middle where there is a post I can hang onto. The street has become a gaping chasm. There is no gravity. No ground. I feel like I’m walking on nothing. My eyes can’t focus. I am terrified. I do my cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) breathing, and eventually I am OK to get across to the other side through the oncoming traffic. Now, just a short walk along the parade to the store.

The whole world suddenly tilts on its side, and panic starts pounding in my chest. But I am so used to it now I simply push on until finally I make it to the store. I check first through the windows to see if there is a queue. Queues are not good. I rush around grabbing what I need. I know what is coming. There is only a small queue today, but still I am shaking and feeling so hot. I start sweating and feel I am going to black out. I hang onto the counter with shaking hands and hope no one notices. I want to vomit. I try to stop my anxious thoughts from overwhelming me, but it seems impossible, like trying to hold a big inflatable beach ball under the water. It escapes from my grasp over and over and keeps popping up in front of my face. My mind feels like it is bouncing in my skull, and I gasp for breath as I panic. I must hold onto something solid. I squeeze myself hard several times to help keep the panic at bay. I sip water again and again. I long to abandon my bread and milk and run for the door and home, but my feet seem to be stuck to the floor. I must see this through. I‘ve done this so many times before! What would everyone think if they knew I was scared of going across the street to get some milk! I am not going to die. I didn’t die here yesterday so I must be OK, I must!

I manage to smile and pay for my shopping, and as I stumble out of the store the heavy shopping bag helps me, keeps me grounded. I focus on its weight. I’m not going to fall off the planet into space. Crossing the street again seems to take forever. I feel as if I am falling to bits and being scattered in the wind. I gasp for breath as I make it across the swirling river of cars and noise and fumes the road has become. I want to cry. I am so scared and embarrassed and tired. I push myself along the final stretch of sidewalk until at last I reach my “safe zone” under the trees near home, and I gasp, and tears come as relief washes over me; I didn’t die, I have made it. I drop the bag in the kitchen and collapse in an exhausted heap on the sofa. My head throbbing, I close my twitching eyes and just breathe. In, out, in, out, safe again.

This is my life now. I want the panic to stop, but it won’t. It is not fun or fashionable. It is simply awful.

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Photo by Clark Young

Originally published: May 24, 2017
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